Hatchet attacker's conviction upheld by state high court

Nov 30, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

The Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld an attempted murder conviction for Terry Schmuck, the Kinnear man who tried to kill his estranged wife with a hatchet in 2015.

Schmuck was sentenced to 30 years in prison last year.

The blow to the head with the hatchet fractured his wife's skull and caused an underlying hemorrhage. She was later flown by air ambulance to a trauma care facility for surgery.

Precedent reversed

Many parties involved in Schmuck's case had expected the court to overturn his conviction based on a ruling earlier this year on Jeremiah Shull.

The Riverton man's first-degree murder conviction was overturned over a dispute on jury instructions. In a new precedent set in February, the court ruled that structural errors in those jury instructions necessitated a new trial, regardless of whether they had prejudiced Shull's case.

Only nine months later, the Supreme Court reversed that precedent in the Schmuck case, defending its decision with a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy: "To re-examine your premise is not a sign of weakness of your judicial philosophy. It's a sign of fidelity to your judicial oath."

Jury instruction

Schmuck had argued that the jury in his case also had been given erroneous jury instructions, based on the Supreme Court ruling over Shull's trial.

In Shull's case, the Supreme Court ruled that the jury had not been instructed to explicitly disprove a "sudden heat of passion" defense in order to convict the man of first-degree murder.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that, even if Schmuck's jury instructions had complied with the new Shull rues, it's unlikely that the "jury verdict would have been more favorable in the absence of the error."

Confident prosecutor

Fremont County Attorney Pat LeBrun told The Ranger he had been confident that Schmuck's conviction would be upheld, since, unlike with Shull, the "sudden heat of passion" defense had not been integral to Schmuck's defense.

Instead, the Schmuck attorneys' main contention was that Schmuck had acted in self-defense when wielding the hatchet.

"While Mr. Schmuck testified that he had been 'mad,' 'upset,' and 'pissed off,' he stated that he had calmed down 'quite a bit' as he drove to Mrs. Schmuck's house; that he stopped along the way and considered turning around and going home; and that he ultimately continued driving to the house so he could 'talk to her' about 'why she's doing the divorce this way instead of like we talked about,'" the Supreme Court noted in its opinion.

At trial, Schmuck's defense attorney argued that Schmuck was "not guilty of doing it in a sudden heat of passion."

"Because Mr. Schmuck argued that he did not act with a sudden heat of passion, he suffered no material prejudice from the district court's failure to require the State to prove the absence of a sudden heat of passion," the court said.

In arguments to the Supreme Court, Schmuck's attorneys also raised numerous other complaints over jury instructions, all of which the court dismissed.

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